PseudoPod 572: Deconstructing Hillsdale


Deconstructing Hillsdale

By D. Morgan Ballmer


What do you recall about the horrific events that unfolded in Hillsdale Heights on December 2nd, 2014? I remember thinking that the town seemed populated by ghosts, mostly. All over Jefferson County living room windows framed our friends and neighbors as they bathed in the cold glow of their televisions, transfixed by the ongoing standoff. The reports didn’t make any sense. Even when it ended, nothing made any sense.

The media attempted to paint a portrait of the gunman, Randy Hollstrom. They sprinkled buzzwords throughout their coverage as if ‘veteran’, ‘loner’, or ‘PTSD’ somehow explained what we were seeing. Our eyes screamed that the words we were hearing did not match up with the footage. Perhaps after so many hours our hunger for peace of mind outweighed our appetite for the truth.

There was no real way for the news to tell the story anyway. Think of those 3-D sculptures which appear as an elephant when seen head on, but take four steps to the right and suddenly it looks like a giraffe. Same with the Hillsdale event – you look directly at the facts and you will never see the evidence that matters. You have to approach it sideways.

One example, Randy’s son. Or, if you prefer, his lack of a son. Or perhaps the theory that he was haunted by someone’s son if not his own. Countless words have already been written about his alleged offspring. Was the boy kidnapped? Killed? Did he ever exist outside of his father’s imagination? Speculation on this point only diverts the conversation down one of several well-worn paths, none which answer the question.

No one knows if the boy existed. Randy loved him a great deal regardless. His final videos are almost exclusively about his son, which means the boy was real enough to him. Now forget the boy. Forget the dubious photographs, the questionable testimony of neighbors, and the illegible scan of a birth certificate anonymously posted online. Remove these distractions from your view and focus on the man himself.

Randy Hollstrom had a childhood replete with its own paradoxes. Hans Hollstrom, the family patriarch, was a part time house painter and full time drinker whose temper earned him multiple stays at the county jail. This seldom mentioned detail of Randy’s life emerged in an interview on the GhostRazor blog in May of 2016. The following excerpt is from an interview the site conducted with Wade Hollstrom, Randy’s older brother:

Wade Hollstrom: That morning we were sent to fetch some beer from the crossroads, ya know? A little spot with a couple mini-marts and a garage. Lots of snow that week so dad loaned Randy his coat and told us to get a move on.

GhostRazor: Randy didn’t have his own coat?

WH: Well, we were still growing up, ya know? It was hard enough keeping us in shoes that fit much less buying new coats every year. House painting doesn’t pay like that.

GR: If you were thirteen at the time Randy must’ve been ten. How did you buy beer?

WH: I didn’t say we bought it. We were sent to fetch it. We knew better than to come back empty handed.

GR: I see. Was it a long walk?

WH: About two miles. Of course, two miles on a country road can seem a lot longer with the snow. That day was cold. Like icicles hanging off our balls, ya’ know? Suddenly this old brown car appears from over the ridge and starts swerving down the road towards us.

GR: You’re out in the country when this happens?

WH: Yeah, nothing but woods and farmland on both sides. I pull Randy to the shoulder of the road because something seems funny, like maybe the driver is drunk or something. Sure enough, a few seconds later a stray dog comes running out from the fields. The mutt isn’t even looking. At that moment, it felt like I was watching a movie, ya know?  Like, I don’t know where the hell this dog is coming from or why this car is out on the icy road. But I could see what was going to happen, right?

GR: Oh no.

WH: Pow! Right? That poor mutt goes flying like a bowling pin. Car didn’t even slow down. I look over at the side of the road there’s a dog shaped hole in the snowbank. Like a Roadrunner cartoon or something. We can hear it whimpering. I’m standing there kinda dazed like what did I just see when Randy bolts over to the snowbank. He takes dad’s jacket off and starts spreading it out on the ground. I start yelling at him “Don’t do it! It’ll be the whoopin’ of your life,” you know?

GR: Because of the jacket?

WH: Yeah! Dad kept it clean, never took it to work. But Randy won’t listen. He lifts the mutt out of the snow and lays him on the jacket. Then he grabs the sleeves and starts dragging the dog towards the crossroads.

GR: Did you guys make it?

WH: Yeah. Dog probably made it too, I don’t know. Some trucker saw us and gave us a ride to the mini-mart. He promised to take the dog on to the vet. Don’t know what else he would’ve done with it.

GR: And Randy was punished when you returned home?

WH: Yeah.

GR: What happened?

WH: Just like I told him . . . that’s what happened.

There are a couple of relevant take-aways from this interview. The most obvious is Randy’s compulsion to save a helpless animal. Twenty years later we will watch him deliver several children directly into police custody while a neighborhood burns. He will be called a deranged kidnapper.

Little attention is given to the physical abuse both Hollstrom brothers suffered from a young age. Such circumstances have long term developmental effects, compulsive and erratic behavior among them. Compound this with the stresses Randy later endures at the Second Battle of Fallujah and you have the recipe for “personal demons”, a phrase the media used as the cornerstone of their reporting. The news repeated this catchphrase so frequently that #personal_demons became a trending tag on several social media platforms in the weeks following the Hillsdale event.

Yet the official story does not make sense when examined. Below is a snippet from the Jefferson County Tribune which hits upon the commonly agreed upon facts of the case:

Former soldier and decorated war hero Randy Hollstrom was shot to death by police during the early morning hours of December 2nd. Officers initially attempted to contain the armed man within the Hillsdale Heights neighborhood on Chester Hill despite desperate pleas from parents who feared for the safety of their children. Hollstrom twice emerged from the depths of the neighborhood only to release several bleary-eyed children into police custody before retreating back among quiet suburban homes and tinsel-strewn lanes of the Hillsdale community.

“Our primary concern was the safety of the children,” said Lt. Kessing of the 13th precinct.

“He would come toward our line surrounded by the kids, always cradling one in the arm that wasn’t holding the shotgun. Those first couple of hours we had no clean shot. Once the houses caught fire our hand was forced. With the additional distraction of the blaze our marksman seized the opportunity to engage. Thank God no children died.”

Thank God no children died. Indeed. No mention of the three missing children that police never recovered that night (four if you believe Randy had a son). A year before the incident this same community of six hundred homes reported two cases of missing children. Were these custody cases gone sour? One parent seizing their offspring and fleeing toward a better tomorrow? Perhaps.

Twice in one year?

Consider too, the infamous Szabó video that surged to over thirty million views in the wake of the Hillsdale event. In it we see a disheveled Randy Hollstrom, a man whose azure stare is devoid of emotion. He sits at a cheap table, perhaps a third or fourth generation hand-me-down. He clutches a stained coffee cup with an unsteady hand. Behind him a pair of sliding glass doors barely reflect the glow of twilight. For fourteen seconds Randy clears his throat, shifts uncomfortably in his wooden chair, and stares at a point to the left of the camera.

“There’s something you all need to know about my son. It sounds insane, but hear me out. I know he’s real, and I think I know what happened. I saw something that really made everything sort of come together,” he says.

The timestamp on the video displays NOV 30, 2014, a mere three days before Randy will be killed by police. The quality of the video is poor, cellphone footage shot in low light. Randy absently rubs his hands together for a few moments before continuing.

“Most of you probably know about rohypnol, or GHB, or whatever they call it. The date rape drug. The one that can wipe your memory. Victims will wake up after being drugged and have no idea what happened. This isn’t crazy conspiracy stuff, it’s medical science. It’s a fact. So we know the brain can be affected in this way by a chemical. But did you ever wonder if maybe there are other ways?”

A sudden impact strikes the glass. The unexpected noise is jarring enough to make first time viewers jump. A small, dark shape vanishes from beyond the glass doors as swiftly as it came. Frame by frame analysis yields few clues. The most popular theory suggests that a black garbage bag, perhaps carrying nails, blew against the house. The explanation is supported by the fact that the home behind Randy (the same one that will burn down a few days later) is a bank foreclosure abandoned during mid-renovation.

Other online commenters claim to see a small hand. One describes it as “the hand of a child striking the door before being yanked back into the night”.  The reaction we see on camera is instantaneous. Randy bolts from the chair and throws the glass doors wide. As he runs off camera he shouts a single exclamation:

“Szabó!”

The video plays another ninety-eight seconds of the deserted table and open doors before ending.

Szabó? A quick internet search reveals this as “a common Hungarian surname “. Amateur internet sleuths quickly formulated several crackpot theories over what this exclamation might mean. Serious aficionados of the case spent days reviewing the rest of Randy’s online videos only to discover the name is never mentioned again. This is a perfect example of why looking directly at the facts blinds people to the depth of this story.  There is an answer to the Szabó question if you search the videos from another angle. It is found in a clip shot four years before the Hillsdale event.

Video Title: Hey Ho, Gypsy Carnival, Yo!

Date: 09/10/2011

The camera pans over a table littered with papers, coffee cups, dirty plates, and beer bottles. Randy is digging through the piles of refuse while the voice of the cameraman questions him.

Unknown Voice: Did you lose the flyer, man? C’mon! I just gave it to you yesterday. How deep could you bury it?

Randy: (Laughing) You’d be surprised.

Unknown Voice: If I miss Vayelle and her coven of belly dancers because of you I’m taking my Xbox controller back.

Randy: Bad news, I don’t know where that is either.

Unknown Voice: Serious? No, wait. You really lost my controller?

Randy: One thing at a time. First let’s find your belly dancers, then we’ll talk about the other stuff.

Unknown Voice: We should talk about personal responsibility.

Randy pulls a lime green sheet from a stack of papers on the table and thrusts it towards the camera. It is one of the few times his magnetic grin is proudly on display. The flier reads:

Unknown Voice: You found it! Now find two bucks for parking and we can roll.

Randy: Of course I found it. I can’t let my boy down.

It is not clear whether Randy is talking about a child or the cameraman when he refers to “my boy”. This is one of a half dozen instances in his video archive where the phrase “my boy” is used in an ambiguous manner. What is clear is that Randy attended the carnival in 2011, and one of the performers was Master Mesmerist Szabó. This is the only other occurrence of that name found to date in the Hollstrom videos.

Further research reveals this discovery is only a minor victory. Master Mentalist Szabò has no other known names. Nor can his identity be found through public records. Authorities in seven different states currently maintain open investigations into Merikano’s Travelling Gypsy Carnival, yet they have found no one to question. The company is not registered with any government agency. The members remain completely anonymous while nineteen outstanding complaints ranging from kidnapping to contributing to the delinquency of a minor currently languish in police archives. Meanwhile, Merikano’s Travelling Gypsy Carnival has vanished as suddenly as it appeared.

It seems impossible that such a large production could operate like ghosts in modern times. Surely a carnival requires permits to operate, liability insurance, payroll records, storage contracts for their equipment in the off season, and so on? There must be something police can trace.

There is not.

They have used a roster of fake names and identities when signing paperwork. Scouring the few secondary sources available we find the following modus-operandi:

  • The carnival is held at questionable venues open to operating outside of bureaucratic norms. Places like the Hillsdale Flea Market, firework vendor lots, or old race tracks.
  • Operations are cash only, no refunds.
  • Each event lasts a single day.
  • Advertising is done by word of mouth or printed flyers.
  • State agents auditing the carnival for regulatory infractions all claim that the carnival was in compliance, though no written records of a single audit have ever been located.

What about racial profiling? Regardless of one’s opinions on the practice it seems a small matter for police to compile a list of Roma who regularly cross state lines. Catch the culprits by process of elimination. That might work if the carnies were, in fact, Romani. However, as the blogger Roma_4lyfe observed:

Look people, when you go to a Renaissance Faire do you think the place is run by Saxons? Does the bartender of your favorite Irish pub talk like a Leprechaun? Then why would you expect this fly-by-night freak show to be run by Gypsies? As a proud Romani, I take it upon myself to check out these shindigs whenever they swing through town. For the record, Merikano’s “gypsies” hide a suspicious number of Metallica and Guns N’ Roses tattoos under those colorful scarves, if you know what I’m saying.

Really, the whole venue is straight up creepy. You always see kids at these things, but this one had a lot of them. Not happy, ride-drunk, cotton candy munching brats either. I’m talking about packs of brooding, listless, pre-teens aimlessly roving the grounds. Where are these kid’s parents, and weren’t they taught not to stare at people? Seriously folks, level up those childrearing skills, you’re giving us Gypsies a bad name!

It appears everything we know about the carnival is questionable, and we know almost nothing. Could the very existence of Merikano’s Travelling Gypsy Carnival be as questionable as Randy Hollstrom’s son? Now you understand why the story of the Hillsdale event cannot be contained within a two-dimensional newspaper article. The foundations of the deception run deeper than our modern minds are trained to excavate.

Sherlock Holmes is famously quoted as saying “when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. This style of thinking is difficult for a generation of eight-second attention spans. We are accustomed to searching for answers by the mouse-click. Finding none, our lazy minds reach for the comforting shibboleths of the day:

Deranged veteran suffering from PTSD.

Child abductor.

Armed.

Loner.

Disturbed.

Delusional.

#personal_demons

These are the refrains we hear whenever Randy Hollstrom’s name is mentioned. Refrains that remains suspiciously consistent regardless of the source. Words we embrace to sideline a harrowing event into a comfortable pattern.

Yet somewhere within the recesses of even the dullest minds lurks a suspicion that the official story isn’t quite true. Rather, there is much about the event we must completely ignore in order for all the pieces to fit together. Randy never physically harmed a child. On the contrary, he sent them directly to the waiting authorities before going back for a second group. As one famous blogger declared, “For a kidnapper he’s behaves an awful lot like a liberator”.

It is not the first time Randy acted as an emancipator. His trip to Merikano’s Gypsy Carnival made a brief splash on the Hillsdale police blotter:

BATTERY

On Sep. 10 two men were reported brawling near the Hillsdale Flea Market vendor lot. When officers arrived on scene they discovered an injured man accompanied by a minor female. The man claimed the altercation took place after an unknown assailant attempted to abduct the girl. The girl gave no statement. The man was taken to Highlands Hospital Center where he was treated and released. No arrests.

Those familiar with the Kertzman Report know the how’s and why’s of this story. Bill Kertzman went to considerable lengths to verify the identity of the two combatants, though he had no luck locating the girl. Ultimately his conclusions rest on the testimony of three sources who witnessed the altercation. All three identified Randy Hollstrom as the man who was injured intervening on behalf of the girl. One witness said the abductor was a dark-haired performer from the carnival. The same source said the abductor also seized a boy shortly before fleeing the scene. No other sources can corroborate that claim. Both other witnesses were unable to recall any details of the assault other than that one had occurred.

They could not recall any details – even though they were mere feet away when a violent fistfight erupted.

Once again, we encounter an astonishing rate of failure with human memory. As if somewhere within these connected events lurks a force capable not only of carving away the memories of the past, but also of editing events that are transpiring before people’s very eyes. It sounds fantastical, the stuff of pulp literature and old sci-fi magazines. Yet the pattern is clear.

No one remembers if Randy had a son.

No one can find Merikano’s Gypsy Carnival.

Two out of three witnesses remember nothing of the man who attempted to kidnap a girl less than twenty feet away from them. A man who would brawl with Randy, fracture two of his ribs, and flee the scene.

The girl made no statement.

There are a handful of astrophysicists who study the activity of black holes by conducting seismological observations upon the debris field that ring them. By examining how the matter at the edge of a black hole behaves certain deductions can be made about the unobservable stellar enigmas themselves. In this same vein consider: what is coincidence except the visible manifestation of machinations we cannot directly observe?

Can we, like the astrophysicists, deduce anything useful from the coincidences glimpsed at the perimeter of Randy Hollstrom’s story? Let us consider one final piece of the puzzle before attempting to reassemble it into a recognizable portrait. Let us talk about what the firemen found in the ruins behind Randy’s house.

Let us talk about the steel cages.

Popular sentiment holds that the cages found standing among the charred rubble were meant for imprisoning children. Fanciful versions of this theory speculate that Randy crawled through the bedroom windows of the children, shotgun slung across his back. Before the startled child could process the nightmarish vision unfolding before them he would silence them with threats or force. Then, out the window they would go, the fortunate ones to the cages and the less fortunate never to be seen again.

This version of events overlooks two major pieces of contrary evidence. The first, live news footage shows Randy directing his child captives into the custody of the police on two separate occasions. The second, police reports show that the cages were not located in the burned ruins of his home, but rather in the ruins of the abandoned house behind him. In fact, there is no physical evidence whatsoever connecting Randy with the cages.

But wait, what about the silver bracelet and cats-eye marbles? Children’s objects found within the very cages themselves! Is this not evidence that the cages were used to confine children? Perhaps. It is possible the cages may have been used for such a terrible purpose. Three or four children are still listed as ‘missing’ from the Hillsdale neighborhood. The fact remains, there is no reason to believe Randy was the culprit.

Then who?

Let us weigh the evidence meticulously. Randy Hollstrom did abduct eleven children from their bedrooms on the night of Dec. 2nd, 2014. However, until that fateful night he had no criminal record. As previously mentioned, Merikano’s Gypsy Carnival has a list of outstanding charges involving crimes against minors that spans seven states. More importantly we must ask “who had regular access to cages large enough to house human children”? Look again at the carnival flyer in the Septermber 10th video, specifically at the depiction of the ‘petting zoo’. Do those cages look familiar now?

Furthermore, Randy had a history of helping others regardless of personal risk. The carnival has a legacy of strange and disturbing events occurring everywhere it went, though people are unable to pin down solid facts. This pattern of missing data is the only hard data we have about the group. No one knows anything about Merikano’s Travelling Gypsy Carnival, except that they have belly dancers and animal cages.

And they have a master mesmerist.

Perhaps you begin to see the three-dimensional picture now. We will never have all of the pieces in place, but from a sideways angle the image is unmistakable. A mysterious carnival of dubious renown crosses paths with a veteran suffering from hero complex. An abduction is foiled, perhaps. Or maybe as Randy is beaten severely by an unknown carnival performer a young boy is taken in lieu of the girl. Possibly a son that is barely remembered?

Suppose the members of Merikano’s Gypsy Carnival are not satisfied with this. Perhaps their original target held a special value. Perhaps their pride can allow no transgressions against the group to stand. Something compels them to squat the abandoned home behind Randy shortly afterward and continue their child trafficking. This will be the beginning of their most masterful puppet show. One that will culminate in the death of the man who openly challenged them.

Did the boy escape when we see that tiny hand slap the sliding glass door in the November video? Or did they let him out to torment his father?

Or, perhaps the media is right. The astonishing amnesia surrounding this case and every other case involving the carnival is simply a coincidence. A mere footnote in another tragic tale of a damaged veteran struggling with personal demons.

This is far more comforting than the thought that maybe his demons were not personal at all. Maybe his demons are also our demons, and they’re still out there.

 

About the Author

D. Morgan Ballmer

D. Morgan Ballmer lives with his wife and daughters in Maple Valley, Washington. His work has been featured in the Pseudopod episode 502 “The Trauma Box”, Three-Lobed Burning-Eye Magazine, Pantheon Magazine, and various anthologies. He can be found online at strangelyquiet.wordpress.com or on FaceBook as D Morgan Ballmer.

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About the Narrators

David Cummings 

David Cummings is the showrunner for The NoSleep Podcast, an award-winning anthology series of original horror stories. He hails from Toronto, Canada. With a background as a professional musician, he has expanded into the realm of voice actor and narrator. He has been heard on various commercial projects and speculative fiction podcasts. One of his goals is to continue supporting the many great audio fiction podcasts that dot the online landscape.

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Moaner T. Lawrence

Moaner T. Lawrence is the Assistant Editor of Pseudopod.

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Scott Campbell

Scott Campbell searches for battles that will increase his skills for the battles to come. The slush pile underneath Pseudopod Towers is a worthy opponent. He also writes, directs, and performs for the queer (in every sense of the word) cabaret The Mickee Faust Club. He also write far too infrequently at the official online home of the Sleep Deprivation Institute (and pop culture website) Needcoffee.com. He lives in Florida with absolutely no pets.

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Alex Hofelich

Alex Hofelich is Co-Editor of PseudoPod, the longest running weekly short horror fiction podcast. You can find him out eating at family-owned restaurants, drinking tiki cocktails, and reading a good book.

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About the Artist

Scott Campbell

Scott Campbell searches for battles that will increase his skills for the battles to come. The slush pile underneath Pseudopod Towers is a worthy opponent. He also writes, directs, and performs for the queer (in every sense of the word) cabaret The Mickee Faust Club. He also write far too infrequently at the official online home of the Sleep Deprivation Institute (and pop culture website) Needcoffee.com. He lives in Florida with absolutely no pets.

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